It seems like we’re always hearing about some new thing that yoga is good for – easing the symptoms of menopause, aiding our digestive systems, calming our frazzled nerves during the holiday season.
Generally, when we hear about the next big thing in yoga, we are almost always referring either directly or indirectly, to our “yoga on the mat.” Go to many yoga classes in studios and you will hear all kinds of claims about the various postures – this one is good for your endocrine system, that one boosts immunity. Some of these are based in anecdotal evidence, some of these are based in science and current research, and unfortunately, much of it is based in myth passed down over many years. So how do we know which ones are true? And how do we look with a bit of a broader lens to contextualize some of these claims?
To understand a little about the various claims made in class, we can start by listening closely to what the teacher is telling us. We can make sure we heard it correctly, and then we can decide how much we are investing in the claim. Maybe it goes in one ear and out the other, or maybe it piques a curiosity in us because of an issue we have, or because of our medical or clinical background, maybe because we are a yoga teacher or a yoga teacher in the making, or maybe our curiosity comes simply out of an interest in all things yoga.
If we decide that we actually hear and are interested in the claim, we can then ask ourselves whether it makes intuitive sense – what do we know about that process or that organ, what do we know about that symptom or that experience or pathology? If we decide that the claim makes intuitive sense to us, we might then take the time to look up the process or organ or muscular structure or physiology that is being referenced, to see if science gels with our intuition. And we might look up the current research, of which there is plenty. Once we have gone through those steps, if we confirm and buy into the claim, we may then decide that we can reliably repeat it, and we can make sure we repeat it correctly.
Guess what? Here’s another claim: Yoga can make you better at listening, better at discerning and better and recalling with precision. But don’t just take my word for it! Let me make my case.
First, when I say that yoga can do all of these things for you, I am not referring to any specific pose, and in the end, I’m not really referring to our asana practice at all. But I can still start with our practice on the mat since that is where most of us have the most experience with our understanding of yoga.
If we think about what each of these qualities – listening, discerning and recalling – require, we can start to see how our yoga asana practice might contribute to their development.
Listening requires being quiet. Our yoga practice helps us to be quiet through its emphasis on the breath and inward focus. Listening requires us to have an open mind. Our yoga practice can help us to develop an open mind through the introduction of new poses, new concepts and even new teachers. Listening requires patience. Our practice helps us to develop patience as we struggle through the ups and downs of our meditation and asana sequences. Listening requires focus. Our practice encourages focus by stilling and mitigating the competing thoughts and feelings that arise as we move through our asana. And there is the deeper listening, too. The listening that comes when we are able to cut through those competing fluctuations of the mind and settle on the wisdom of the heart. Our practice can help us with that, too.
Discernment requires many of those same qualities, and then some. Discernment requires mental clarity and non-bias. Our yoga practice can encourage those states through breath work and mindfulness. Discernment requires us to be able to feel and see things at a very subtle level and discernment requires slowing down, both integral parts of our practice on the mat.
Recollection and memory require all of the qualities of listening and discernment as well as a low-stress environment and an ability to hold multiple pieces of information simultaneously. Hopefully our yoga classes are low-stress environments and experienced teachers know how to offer just the right amount of information and feedback for a student to process in real time.
But let’s take just a moment; let’s take a breath and reflect. Did you actually hear what I just said? Well, it’s in writing, so pretty easy for you to refer back to. Does it even matter to you? Do you have any investment in its truth or non-truth? Is it something you want to consider further? Then go ahead. Does it make intuitive sense to you? Does it seem reasonable that your yoga practice might have the capacity to make you better at listening, better at discernment, better at recollection? Then you might see if there is any research to support that. If not, is there more information you can gather to strengthen your intuitive sense of this claim’s validity?
A quick internet search, including searching the database of International Association of Yoga Therapists, did not yield any research to support these claims. So here we rely on an intuitive sense, basic common sense and critical thinking. But here is when I also remind you that when I suggested yoga could make you a better listener I said that I’m not really referring to our asana practice at all. So what am I referring to?
Well, as a yoga student, teacher and therapist for over 15 years, I have found that some of the basic concepts in Vedic literature are in fact the most transformational and most healing aspects of the total practice. While we in the west emphasize the importance and necessity of our practice on the mat, some of the very lineages we revere teach us differently.
For example, the whole “flow” phenomenon might be traced to Pattabhi Jois and his ashtanga yoga. What has emerged in the west as a highly physical, highly competitive and highly driven method of physical yoga, has been described by Jois himself in this way: “Using [yoga] for physical practice is no good, of no use – just a lot of sweating, pushing, and heavy breathing for nothing. The spiritual aspect, which is beyond the physical is the purpose of yoga. When the nervous system is purified, when your mind rests in the atman [the Self], then you can experience the true greatness of yoga.”
In my practice and teachings, I always encourage my students to look at some of the highest values offered by the Vedas and how they can both support and inform our practice. Among these, I think most of shruti, viveka and smriti.
Shruti is the word that is used to refer to divine origin of the texts; it is also referred to as “what is heard.” In this context, shruti is the term that is used to describe how these most ancient texts came into being – they were literally said to be “heard” by rishis in divine revelation. But we can also take this word and think about what it would take to “hear” divine inspiration – not just focus, stillness and open mindedness, but an ability to listen to the quiet and profound whisperings of the heart through the often chaotic din of the mind. We, as yoga students, then could also adopt the feeling of shruti, when we learn to really, really listen – to both facts and to the deep wisdom of the heart.
Viveka is a concept that refers to discernment or discrimination, and in this case, especially between the “real” and the “unreal.” If we were to bring this concept itself more deeply into our awareness and our every day practice, we might find that we are better adept at knowing people’s true intentions even when their outward expression makes us uncomfortable. It might help us to discern what is really “right” for us in the moment, and to make choices based in the most illuminated sagacity of our human spirit, rather than the constantly changing flow of personal, cultural and social influence.
And finally, smriti, or “that which is remembered,” while referring specifically to a body of religious scripture, might also ignite in us a desire to actually take the time and discipline to recall things with accuracy, so that we are less like the game of “telephone” and more like a precise recording. Remember, the Vedic tradition was an oral tradition, and the Vedic scholars had very precise ways in which they transmitted their knowledge, with very complex mathematical algorithms and patterns for precise memorization so that the teachings were not watered down or passed on in an imprecise fashion.
So, can yoga make you a better listener? I think so. We can use our basic practice on the mat and to think of the intuitive aspects of the practice that might be the building blocks to good listening. But we might also consider some of the most ancient and fundamental values in Vedic literature, the roots of modern yoga, to further stretch our minds and to add value to our practice. But don’t take my word for it. Put it to the test. See if it works for you. Invite an open heart, a focused mind and your own powers of critical thinking to decide whether what I say feels true for you. And if it does, do your best to repeat it with accuracy.
Yoga is good for listening, and it is good for stretching beyond what you think you know. In all ways.
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[Photo by Justin Lynham – CC BY]
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